Gluten-free products are slowly dominating grocery stores and restaurants, providing an assortment of options for those who are gluten intolerant. But what is gluten intolerance? What even is gluten?
What is gluten?
Gluten comprises most of the proteins found in various types of grains. It is found in crops such as wheat, rye, barley, oats and their many relatives.
Specifically, gluten comes from the endosperm of seeds which is responsible for nourishing plants as they undergo germination. The endosperm itself is a tissue that is ground to produce flour. That flour in turn is used for bread, baked products and other cooked goods.
While the term loosely applies to numerous different proteins that share certain features, gluten can be broken down into two separate types of proteins: glutenin, which is responsible for the elasticity and strength of dough, and gliadin, which allows bread to rise and possesses more responsibility for adverse health effects.
To put it shortly: the word “gluten” applies to a family of proteins found grains that provide the glue-like consistency of dough and further causes it to rise when baked.
Where is gluten found?
As previously mentioned, gluten is found in grains and their derivatives. Common foods that use gluten include: pastas, noodles, breads, crackers, baked goods, cereals, beer, and many sauces.
Any item that contains wheat flour in its ingredient list also contains gluten. Further, cooking in shared areas can unintentionally “cross-contaminate” gluten into dishes that are originally gluten-free. If previous grain products were also prepared with kitchen appliances, complete sanitization is necessary to ensure no traces of gluten will contaminate other foods.
Why do some people have problems with gluten?
While most people can break down gluten without issue, some experience gluten intolerance that ranges from mild to extremely severe. Those with disturbances from gluten typically can be categorized into three main causes: celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder and the most severe manifestation of gluten intolerance. The immune system detects gluten as a foreign substance and prepares its defense to attack the purported invader, damaging the lining of the gut.
A damaged lining leads to indigestion, nutritional deficiencies, bloating, IBS, headache, fatigue and numerous other ailments.
Diagnosis of Celiac disease is very difficult due to its fickle nature and variable phenotype. Research demonstrates that women generally possess a higher likelihood of testing positive (1).
Individuals who do not present with Celiac disease but still experience negative effects from gluten may have gluten sensitivity, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Gluten sensitivity lacks a formal clinical definition and adequate testing measures, but is diagnosed when Celiac disease and other allergies have been ruled out.
An immune reaction to any of the myriads of proteins in wheat can cause a wheat allergy. This differs from gluten insensitivity and Celiac disease in that a person may present a strong reaction from wheat products, but can tolerate non-wheat forms of gluten without issue.
How do you know if you have gluten intolerance?
If you suspect you may suffer from gluten intolerance, seek medical advice in order to acquire a diagnosis that can provide you with answers and a treatment plan. Additionally, trying to abstain from gluten products for an extended period of time and observing the effect on your symptoms might provide actionable insight (2).